Penguins Stopped Play – Harry Thompson

Harry Thompson was the original producer for the hit BBC TV show ‘Have I Got News For You’ and ran it for the first five series, he was also involved in several other TV programmes, there are a few short references to his TV career in the book, most notably when he managed to get people such as comic actor Hugh Dennis to turn out for his cricket team but this is not really an autobiography.It is instead a history of the cricket team he started and captained for over twenty five years. Now village cricket is not a high level sport and The Captain Scott XI, named after a person who famously came second, struggled to reach even this low bar. Initially this was deliberate on the part of several members of the team who simply wanted to lark about and had no intention of winning a game, gradually however this complete disregard for sporting etiquette meant that it became harder and harder for Thompson to find teams willing to play them. Gradually the team split into two camps and eventually into two separate teams one which continued to just lark about and the other, led by Thompson, determined to win a few games for a change.

The book starts however with a rapidly abandoned game on an Antarctic ice shelf which ironically doesn’t feature the Captain Scott XI at all but is instead an impromptu match thought up by passengers on an Antarctic cruise (including Thompson) who discover that due to excess ice they were going to be unable to get to Shackleton’s and Scott’s huts after all. Using oars from the ship as bats and a real cricket ball packed by a New Zealand passenger just in case it would be useful they start a game but presumably the echoes in the water underneath the ice shelf attracted the penguins which soon swarmed over the ‘pitch’ making play impossible leading to the oddest reason for stopping a game and the title of this book.

Before the original Captain Scott XI fell apart someone came up with the bright idea to go as a team to India to play a few matches in the hope that this would bring the increasingly fractious players together.

It sounded like a great idea; and also like a terrible mistake. It turned out to be both

The ‘tour’ started in Hong Kong as one of the ex members of the Captain Scott XI had been posted there by the bank he worked for and promised to arrange a couple of games, they would then fly back via India for a few more games before heading home a more united team. Almost none of this went to plan. As stated at the beginning English village cricket is just about as low level as you can get and still play, this standard doesn’t seem to be understood by any other country so they kept coming up against far better teams and losing spectacularly even without the sabotage several of the players indulged in. They did however play some games and get back without actually killing each other and this ‘success’ inspired Thompson to try again, this time heading for South Africa, the home country of a couple of the regular players for the team. Not only was the Captain Scott XI destined to be beaten again by much better teams who simply didn’t believe that another cricket team could be this bad but the travelling arrangements were almost impossible to make. This was the tour that finally split the team completely and ‘the layabouts’ as Thompson refers to them went off and formed a separate team.

Freed from the players that were ‘holding them back’ and flushed with the success of almost winning a couple of games Thompson came up with a clearly crazy plan, the Captain Scott XI would tour the world, and it is this trip that makes up the second half of the book. The cricket definitely gets better and they had managed another quick tour before then, just a week with only two matches in Malaysia because two of the team were half Malay which included them actually winning against the Malaysian national team, although a severely depleted version by playing on a week day when half the team would be working. Touring Barbados, Buenos Aires, Australia, Singapore and South Africa one after another on eleven round the world tickets when the British Airways system ‘gets confused’ if there is more than nine people in a group was an amazingly chaotic experience. Several times BA assured them that there were no flights from one destination to another leaving them flying thousands of miles in the wrong direction when they boarded next to a direct flight going exactly where they wanted to go, wasting time and adding to increasingly bad jet lag. Tickets kept getting refused, players arrested for having the wrong paperwork (normally whilst transiting America) and one thing they could almost always guarantee was torrential rain on arrival. It was to be the last international tour of the Captain Scott XI under Harry Thompson and the stories he tells are hilarious.

Sadly Thompson died from lung cancer aged just 45 despite never having smoked in his life, he had time to go over the final notes for this book in his last few days. This therefore becomes the third book I’ve read in as many months where the author didn’t live to see it come out after Barry Letts and Elisabeth Sladen. You don’t need to be a cricket fan, although I am, to enjoy this book, the often disastrous travel stories are what makes it a great read and you fume along with Harry at the magnificent incompetence of the British Airways flight booking service.

Mr Petre – Hilaire Belloc

I have five or six books by French author, but naturalised Englishman, Hilaire Belloc but apart from his book of humorous poetry ‘Selected Cautionary Verses’ I haven’t read any of them, reading this makes me want to pull the others off the shelves. My copy is the 1947 first Penguin edition, so 75 years old, and I can’t find any currently available editions which is a shame as it is a genuinely great read. Although written in 1925 it is set in the future of April 1953 and the basic conceit of being in the future, at least as far as the author is concerned, is that there was no longer the need for passports for British citizens entering the UK, although how you proved you were British and therefore didn’t need a passport is conveniently glossed over. It is vitally important for the plot however as the character we come to know as Mr John K Petre has no documentation on him with his name having arrived from America and losing his memory almost upon disembarking from the ship. He clutches at a barely remembered name ‘Petre’ as his own as he sinks into a nightmare of scratchily forming memories, but the name alone, whether it is his or not, proves his salvation, for it is a name of an eccentric multi-millionaire who thrives on being incognito.

There then follows a series of chancy investments, mainly by accident, but where the name of Petre works as a guarantee with no real financial backing, the first of which nets almost eighty thousand pounds and the second over a million but without our hero having any real knowledge as to what he is doing. The first is a simple boosting of the stock market which follows the knowledge that the great John K Petre has invested in a moribund stock which massively boosts the value, at least for a few days at which point the agent he had met at a dinner party cashed in for him and simply sent a cheque for his profit to the hotel he was staying in. This has some of the least likely plot lines in the novel and also some of the most dodgy mathematics as try as I can I cannot get a profit as stated in the narrative from the vague hints as to what the story says happened. The depositing of the cheque into a random bank account set up to receive it is also highly unlikely as no evidence is either requested or presented that the cheque has not been stolen or that the depositor is indeed John K Petre. The second transaction is however, oddly, far more believable despite netting over a million pounds when the character had nowhere near the required collateral for the property purchase involved but as he sold it straight away for far more than the agreed purchase price I can see this as quite possible, it is just a matter of timing payments.

I don’t want to give too much away, these two transactions occur in the first half of the book and Mr Petre has far more to go through before the end, but it is a brilliant novel which really draws the reader into the plot line both in feeling for our hero, who clearly has no idea what he is doing and is just led along by advisers, and also joy in the sheer blind luck he has in getting away with random investments much to his own surprise. What really surprises me however is that this 1947 paperback appears to be the last edition available, searching though abebooks and biblio, which represent the vast majority of online second hand book dealers, I cannot find a more recent copy apart from print on demand. I cannot understand why such a superb book has been effectively out of print for seventy five years, please if any publishers are reading this can we have a more recent edition? If anything due to the financial shenanigans so prevalent nowadays the book is more relevant then when it was first published almost a hundred years ago. If you can find a copy I suggest getting and reading it you won’t be disappointed.

How to Build a Universe – Professor Brian Cox & Robin Ince

Based on the highly successful BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ this is science book like no other I have read. The radio show is also difficult to explain to people that haven’t listened to it, and you definitely should listen to it (link at the end of this blog) because it is co-hosted by on the one hand a Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University and on the other a stand up comedian which is an extremely unlikely combination but works brilliantly. The look of the book matches the slightly anarchic structure of the radio show which in an early episode whilst discussing something completely different wandered onto the subject of “is a strawberry alive or dead?” They have come back to this subject on other occasions and I was pleased to see this being treated in the book as shown below:

The science for the most part is not overly challenging and the only really complex section is the largest, an eighty page chapter entitled ‘Recipe to Build a Universe’ which is almost entirely written by Brian Cox and as Robin writes:

This is the hard bit of the book. You may need a pencil to underline sections or just to occasionally jab into your leg or skull as you ask “but what does it all mean?” Don’t let this put you off

Page 80

In truth I have read so many books on this topic that it was relatively easy to follow and I largely sailed through this bit as it is so well written. Although a background of nuclear physics, coincidentally at Manchester University although six years before Brian went there to do his degree, possibly also helped. It also helped that the book is actually very funny especially during interplay between Cox and Ince, I laughed out loud at several sections and particularly a part written by Robin with increasingly irritated footnotes correcting him by Brian.

Other topics covered include the concept of infinity, space travel, the ultimate death of the universe and lots of things in between. In this way it is very similar to the radio show in that the main subject of a chapter, or indeed an episode, can be lost briefly if something interesting comes up as an aside. ‘Schrödinger’s strawberry’ (is it alive or is it dead) alluded to in the first chapter of this review is a prime case in point. You will learn a lot from this book but it won’t feel like it at the time unlike tackling something like Relativity by Albert Einstein or any of the four important science books I read one after another in August 2020. The style is easily approachable and the need for Brian to make sure that Robin is following the points as he makes them keeps the text grounded, although Robin Ince has now written his own science book ‘The Importance of Being Interested’ which I have a copy of so expect a review of that in a couple of months or so.

The radio show is just embarking on its twenty fourth series, some of the earlier ones only had four episodes but it now seems to have settled on six and all of them are available on the BBC website via this link. The shows on the site are usually the extended podcast versions rather than the original thirty (now forty five) minute broadcast. The usual format is that Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by two scientists who specialise in the subject selected for that episode and also another comedian who may have a science background but more often does not. A notable exception to this format, and an episode that is well worth listening to, was the astronaut special from series 22 where they were joined by astronauts Helen Sharman, Chris Hadfield, Nicole Stott and Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart. The book is great fun, the radio show even more so.

I is a Strange Loop – Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould

A mathematical play, not a combination of words I ever expected to write and yet somehow it works. The authors are Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University Marcus du Sautoy and actress Victoria Gould who has a degree in physics and a masters degree in applicable mathematics. The play starts slowly with just one of the characters X on stage inside a large cube miming the drawing of two Platonic sequences, first the derivation of a regular hexagon using just a straight edge and a compass and secondly the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two using ever decreasing squares. Now this may not sound like riveting drama and frankly unless you know exactly what X is doing then it is very difficult to follow but X is about to have his whole world view changed by the arrival of the second character (or variable as they are referred to in the script) Y. Up until this point X has considered himself to be the only person and indeed the cube that he is in to be the only cube. Y however has travelled through millions of cubes and accumulated many things on her journey but is about to encounter her first ever other person, although she is surprised X is completely shocked by her appearance in his cube and through a couple of mathematical fallacies attempts to prove her non-existence.

OK this is probably sounding like a very niche production but believe me it is well worth sticking through the initial phases especially when we get to the second act which brilliantly turns the whole play on it’s head but more of that later. It also has to be the only play I have ever read that comes with a fourteen page guide to the maths in the play at the back of the book entitled A Mathematical Prompt Book. This is useful for the non-mathematician in explaining not only the maths but also some of the language used and functions very much like the glossary found at the back of some versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Would you get the joke about the Möbius script right at the end of the play if you don’t know what a Möbius strip is, probably not. But back to the first act. After Y demonstrates that there is a room, and in fact a series of rooms beyond the cube that X inhabits X then believes that the series must be infinite and tries (and fails) to prove this just as he also fails to physically prove other infinite series simply because, as Y points out, there are limits that prevent such physical proofs. All attempts to find an OUT, a place beyond the cube series also fail.

The second act is completely different and the humour of the piece grows, that’s not to say that the first act isn’t funny, the interactions between the purely mathematical X and the more practical Y are definitely amusing but the second act introduces reality is an very unexpected way. Right from the start of the second act Y believes the play is over and indeed no longer calls herself Y but instead uses her real name Victoria, X however is still very much in character. Victoria makes various attempts to disabuse X of his belief that the play continues including showing him that it is possible to leave the stage, go round the back and come back in from the opposite wing. She explains that the seemingly random noises heard during the play are the sounds of the underground trains near the theatre (there really was the sound of the underground where the play was first staged at The Barbican Pit Theatre in London) and she even produces a model of the set to show X that it is simply a stage. Nothing works and instead the play finishes almost back where it started. It really is very funny, both in the absurdity of the position that the characters find themselves in throughout the play and their changing relationships but also the increasing frustrating part of Victoria as the play is forcing itself back around her even as she believes she has finished.

The entire play can be seen here in a performance filmed at the Oxford Playhouse where the two parts are taken by the authors showing a surprisingly good acting ability from du Sautoy especially in what has to be described as experimental theatre. At one hour and fifteen minutes into the video the play is over and we go to a three quarters of an hour discussion about the play with Marcus du Sautoy, Victoria Gould interviewed by Simon McBurney, founder of Complicité, the theatre group responsible for the performance and which Gould is closely linked to. It’s definitely worth watching the play and it is considerably less intimidating knowing that the over two hour runtime of the video represents almost twice the length of the actual performance. Give it a go…

No Bed for Bacon – Caryl Brahms & S J Simon

Doris Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, better known as Caryl Brahms and S J Simon respectively, collaborated on eleven comic novels and crime stories between 1937 and 1948 when S J Simon died suddenly at the age of just 44. No Bed for Bacon was their sixth book, first published in 1941, and is a comic retelling of Elizabethan England featuring William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth herself and numerous other famous characters from the period. Caryl Brahms was best known as a theatre, especially ballet, critic and S J Simon was a journalist but much more famous in the world of contract bridge where he was European champion and also the author of books on the subject.

Well this was a fun romp round Elizabethan London with lots of running gags including the one that gives the book its title which is Sir Francis Bacon’s desperate attempt to get hold of a bed that Queen Elizabeth had slept in during one of her many progressions around England which was seen as a major status symbol in ones home. In this he is constantly thwarted partly at the hands of the Master of the Revels who controls all such progressions but also bu Elizabeth herself who knowing of his desire for such an item of furniture ensures that it never goes to him. Other running jokes include William Skakespeare constantly trying out spellings for his name, which definitely has a basis in fact because all the known remaining signatures by Shakespeare are spelt differently. Sir Walter Raleigh keeps getting a new and ever more flashy cloak only for it to be ruined within a couple of hours, from the, probably apocryphal, tale of him using his cloak to keep the Queens feet dry when her carriage stopped by a puddle and in contrast Lord Burghley keeps being dressed in more and more shabby attire. Shakespeare also keeps trying to start a new play called Loves Labours Wonne as a companion piece to Loves Labours Lost which famously has not survived to the present day even assuming that he ever finished it in reality and the regular sections in terrible Elizabethan spelling also add to the joy of reading the book.

The opening character remains anonymous through the work yet appears regularly always doing a different job as he makes a rapid rise, and even faster fall through the ranks of the proletariat from horse holder outside a theatre, to watchman, soldier, manservant, prisoner and back to watchman amongst many other jobs too numerous to list. He invariably starts any chapter actually set in London and you get used to seeing what he has managed to become this time. The other main fictional character, most of the people in the book really existed, is the young Lady Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. If this sounds familiar than you have probably seen the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow plays Lady Viola who disguises herself as a man in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. Just a reminder that the book was written in 1941 and Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the film is known to have had a copy of the book but claims to have not been influenced by it despite even using the same character name and no credits to Brahms or Simon are given in the film.

The book does play fast and loose with historical accuracy (as does the film which nicked the plot) but one of the most poignant sections and indeed the longest chapter of the novel takes place on a boat on the Thames with Queen Elizabeth progressing down the river in the company of her famous military and naval commanders whilst reliving the routing of the Spanish Armada. From what I remember of my Tudor history lessons this does appear to be mainly factually correct although it does contain Sir Francis Drake completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to meet the enemy which almost certainly didn’t happen. There are various sidelong comments regarding Drake being lucky with the wind which however was certainly correct.

Forsooth, tis a merrie romp Master Will and I definitely recommend the novel assuming you can lay your hands on a copy as it appears to have been out of print for a couple of decades but there are plenty of copies available on abebooks.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition published in December 1948 five months after the death of S J Simon, Carly Brahms greatly outlived him and died just 3 days short of her 81st birthday in 1982.

Campaigns & Companions – Andi Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett

OK, this is an extremely short book, being more a series of jokes about why you should never let your pets take part in Role Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it is however also extremely funny and beautifully illustrated by Calum Alexander Watt. I purchased the signed edition which comes with four art cards each signed by one of the two authors, the illustrator and the editor and which have on the back a character profile in the style of RPG’s of the illustrated pets including special skills and dice rolling advantages and disadvantages. It has arrived in the post today and has immediately leapfrogged over all the other books in my to be read pile.

As it says on the back cover “What if your pets could play D&D? And what if they were… kind of Jerks?”

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will be all too familiar with that particular feline trait. There are forty five double page spreads like this with a scenario from a game on the left hand side and an illustration which mainly stays on the right but occasionally strays over to mix with the text, There is also a centre page double spread picture of the animals playing whilst seated at a table just as if they are human. One I particularly liked, because a friends dog is quite capable of doing this, is a dog with his staff in his mouth not able to understand why he can’t get through an archway. I’ve watched her dog try to get through a door to greet me whilst holding a branch in his mouth that is clearly too large to go through and getting more and more puzzled as to why he can’t get in.

Amazingly all the jokes work, there is a preponderance of cat and dog tales but that simply reflects the spread of pets, at least in the UK but there are also gerbils, a hamster, rats, a chameleon, a rabbit, a snake and even a spider amongst various others, but everything rings true to the habits of the animals.

As I said at the beginning of this review the four art cards, each signed by one of the people involved in the project, have a different format to the rest of the book and take four of the featured characters from the book and add more details on the back of the card that would be relevant if they were taking part in a Role Playing Game. The four cards are as follows:

I’ll just show the top half of the card for Rexar the Fighter and Poppy which was signed by Rhianna Pratchett, who by the way in her dedication in the book says “To Pinky and Perky. My wonderful girls. Thank you for all the bleps, plurps and snuggles”, I just hope they were guinea pigs and that is why she chose to sign this one. The other three contributors also dedicated the book to their pets

This shows the sort of extra detail, and jokes, that are only available to owners of the signed edition and as this cost the same price I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t get this variant at least while stocks last, it is only available from Forbidden Planet whilst the standard edition is widely distributed. The book is published by Rebellion who I hadn’t heard of before but I suspect it will be worth checking out their catalogue. As Ian Livingstone (co-founder of Games Workshop and the Fighting Fantasy series of books) says in his blurb for the book

Dangerously funny – I had to make a saving throw vs side-splitting. Pet adventurers – you have been warned.

The Clicking of Cuthbert – PG Wodehouse

By way of contrast to the five French works I read throughout August I have chosen the most quintessentially English of writers for the first book of this month P G Wodehouse. I should at this point make it clear that I am not a golf fan so this is a slightly odd choice of book to have on my shelves, but I am definitely a Wodehouse fan and he didn’t let me down. The ten stories collected into this book are definitely all set on the golf course but the gentle humour of Wodehouse pervades the tales not so much about golf but about relationships and especially young love. Men battle it out with clubs and balls to win the hand of the one they love, in two of the stories without the lady herself being aware she was the object of such competition. Always playing the ball where it lies or being regarded as a blackguard, see the cover illustration where Cuthbert Banks plays from the dining table of a house adjacent to the links. It should be noted that although the book is called The Clicking of Cuthbert he only appears in the first story.

Most of the stories are related in the clubhouse by The Oldest Member usually as some younger chap comes to him for advice, not necessarily on golfing matters. He will then relate a tale of some past member with a useful message for the struggling supplicant, in the case of Cuthbert Banks it was how golf finally won him the hand of the lovely Adeline Smethurst a girl who until a fateful evening at a literary soiree thought that only a renowned novelist or poet would be a suitable match. The Oldest Member tells the story to encourage a young man not to give up golf and prove that there is a use for golf.

The Folio Society edition is beautifully illustrated by Paul Cox with 41 inset black and white drawings along with a colour cover, frontispiece and end papers which illustrate the Woodhaven Golf Club where most of the stories are set, see final picture in this blog. Below is the occasion where Celia Tennant had hit her fiancee with her niblick in an attempt to stop his endless chattering on the course from the fifth story in the book, The Salvation of George Mackintosh.

One of the stories concerns the need to always retain a clear head whilst playing golf as illustrated in this quote from Ordeal by Golf.

How few men, says the Oldest Member, possess the proper golfing temperament? How few indeed, judging by the sights I see here on Saturday afternoons possess any qualification at all for golf, except a pair of baggy knickerbockers and enough money to enable them to pay for the drinks st the end of the round. The ideal golfer never loses his temper. When I played I never lost my temper. Sometimes, it is true, I may, after missing a shot, have broken my club across my knees, but I did it in a clam and judicial spirit, because the club was obviously no good and I was going to get another one anyway.

As the stories in this book date from 1919 to 1922, it was first published in book form in 1922, the club names are the traditional ones from the then almost exclusively Scottish makers. Clubs weren’t numbered until the Americans got involved in manufacturing in the 1930’s it therefore helps to know that a Brassie is a 3 wood, a Mashie a five iron, a Niblick is a nine iron and by inference a Mashie-niblick is a 7 iron. Other clubs referred to in the book are a Spoon (5 wood), a Rut niblick (wedge) and a Cleek (either a 1 or 2 iron). Bring back the old names, they give a definite beauty to the game.

In the end paper illustration Paul Cox has clearly studied the stories in the book as the holes are recognisable from the descriptions given with the various hazards such as the lake on hole 2 clearly visible.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand – John Birmingham

Firstly a warning, the book contains strong language and lots of stories of excessive drug and alcohol use and things that happen when that happens, but don’t let that put you off unless you really don’t think that it is suitable for you. That said this book is so incredibly funny and yet so believable that when Birmingham says that it all really happened to him you have to believe him, and it certainly could be true that he had eighty nine of the craziest people house share with him over the years. I know I wouldn’t last five minutes with any of them. Birmingham is an Australian and all the places he lived are in various Australian cities, starting with Brisbane but including Sydney, Melbourne and others over thirteen different properties. Sometimes he moved because he just wanted to, more often it was to get away from his housemates and at least once to avoid being killed by one of them. Because the book isn’t told sequentially and there is no timescale it’s difficult to tell over how long a period it all takes place but some properties he left really quickly whilst in others he was the last man standing.

Interspersed amongst the text are grey shaded passages written by other people who have also experienced Australian house sharing hell. These are a little confusing at first as they appear right in the middle of stories that Birmingham is telling about his own particular nightmare cohabitants. Initially I tried to read them as interludes but it soon became clear that it was easier to get to the end of whatever horror story we were in at the time and then go back and read the one or two extra bits I had skipped, There are also a few extras that are several pages long and in a different typeface to resemble typewritten sections which are too long to be the greyed inserts but clearly Birmingham thought were so funny they had to be included somehow, all these occur at the end of chapters with a full page greyed out intro.

Milo won the house competition for not changing out of his jeans. PJ and I dropped out at four and five weeks respectively, but Milo, who liked the feel of rotting denim – “It’s like a second skin!” – was pronounced the champion at ten weeks and told to have a bath or leave. It was an all-male house.

There are various comparisons of all-male and mixed sex house shares, being male Birmingham obviously has limited experiences of all female occupation, and the general consensus is that for sheer disgustingness nothing beats the all-male property especially if the occupancy level is well above that intended. Set against that for true angst you need to have at least one woman in there (males tend to descend into their own chilled out pit of squalor) and if two, or more, of the housemates are in a sexual relationship it’s probably time to get out of there fast before the whole thing implodes. The other thing that will definitely kill an otherwise happy house is the introduction of a junkie, not just for the drug taking but also for the petty thefts to feed the habit and the tendency to attract the attention of the police with consequences for all. The title of the book comes from the opening line and ‘He’ was named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had joined an otherwise happy house only recently but it turned out he was a junkie, he had died whilst watching TV after a night out where he had had probably one too many of his drug of choice that evening and had passed out and died whilst eating the said felafel, the yogurt dressing had run down over the puncture marks in his arm. It was apparently Birmingham’s first dead housemate, he doesn’t however say if it was his last.

Whilst looking this book up to make sure it was still in print, it is, I found that it had subsequently been made into a long running play, a film in 2001 and a graphic novel in 2004 so it’s popularity, especially in its native Australia, seems assured. John Birmingham is now an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this was his first book although he had written articles and stories for a few magazines before this.

Humble Pi – Matt Parker

Subtitled ‘A comedy of Maths Errors’ this book looks at mistakes not only with mathematics but also some dodgy computer programming and some problems that fall in between like the fact that an employee kept disappearing from the company database and it turns out that his name was Steve Null. I used to be a programmer and more importantly for this example a Database Analyst so immediately saw the problem here, empty fields which should be populated are counted as Null in a database so you would search for Null entries and delete the records as they are clearly not filled in correctly and could cause processing errors later down the line, this person was actually called Null so kept being deleted.

Matt Parker is the Public Engagement Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, amongst many other things, and has made a career out of explaining mathematics to the general public both on youtube and in highly successful theatre based tours. He started out as a maths teacher in his native Australia but has lived in England for many years and built his online presence here. The book is not only informative regarding maths errors and possible pitfalls but includes several mathematical jokes in its layout such as starting at page 314 and counting down which is clearly not normal behaviour for a book. The choice of 314 is deliberate as Matt is well known for his annual calculations of pi in different ways on pi day (American format dates for the 14th of March gives 3.14) including one ideal for this which uses the actual book I’m reviewing to calculate pi.

Other ways he plays with the normal structure of a book include having a chapter 9.49 between chapters 9 and 10, which appropriately covers problems with rounding errors, and the index which is surprisingly accurate as not only do you get the page with the entry on but as it is to five decimal places you get the location of the word you searched for.

Some of the errors I had come across before but surprisingly not many, this is a really well researched piece of work. One I hadn’t heard of in the past is now rapidly becoming my favourite mistake because it was so close to being right and then fell over at the final hurdle. There was a bridge being built between Switzerland and Germany and to save time it was decided to start from both sides and meet in the middle. Clearly this is a good idea but you do need to actually line up perfectly so the maths is even more vital than normal for an engineering project. There is a problem with matching heights and that is that they are calculated ‘above sea level’ now that wouldn’t be an issue if sea level was constant (it isn’t, the curvature of the Earth amongst other factors sees to that) bit also Switzerland does not have a coast but via a fairly convoluted route uses the Mediterranean Sea as its base point. Germany does have a coast but a long way from Switzerland on the North Sea. The engineers thought of this however and correctly calculated the difference as 27cm, which is pretty impressive (a) to think of it and (b) to get it right but then added the 27cm to the wrong side so the bridge missed its joint by 54cm.

If this post intrigues you Matt has done a couple of lectures based around the book and this is the link to the one he gave at The Royal Institution in London last year. In it he goes through several examples in the book including a section near the end where his wife, space scientist Lucy Green, brings into the lecture hall what remains of a satellite blown to pieces and dumped in a swamp after a simple maths error. You can’t easily get a more dramatic, or indeed more expensive example of maths gone wrong than that. I bought the book from Matt on his website so it is signed by him and yes I have posted this a day late from my usual Tuesday and between 7pm and 8pm rather than 7am and 8am to show that getting a number wrong is all too common and Matt also left in three errors for exactly that reason.

Mark Steel’s in Town – Mark Steel

Mark Steel is a stand up comedian that started a BBC Radio 4 radio show called Mark Steel’s in Town back in March 2009 where he travels to towns in the UK and builds a routine about the place and people for a one off show played in that town. He has deviated slightly over the years and two shows have come from outside the UK, namely Gibraltar and most recently Malta (broadcast February 2019) both of which he found more British than a lot of the places he had been to before. This book, published by Fourth Estate in 2011, is adapted from his travels in the first two series along with other towns and cities that he did as part of his stand up tours which weren’t recorded for the BBC shows. The idea is to gently poke fun at the place he is in and during the radio show he also includes interviews with locals which highlight the oddities and history of the location.

The idea for the show grew out of a frustration that all towns are starting to look the same, you know that such and such a shop will be on that corner there, next to a legion of other similar shops, there is no real way to tell if you are in Taunton or Norwich when you are in the main shopping area as the same retailers are in roughly the same place no matter where you are. What Mark does is celebrate what makes a place different from anywhere else and the fact that he does it in such a funny way has made his series last over a decade. Presumably he would be working on series ten if it wasn’t for the coronavirus that makes such a project impossible.

In this book Mark bounces around Britain from Penzance in the far south west with its outdoor swimming pool which has a cannon built into one side of it; to Kirkwall on Orkney which is just about as far north as you can go and still be in the UK where he encounters a pram shop which is also a fully stocked off licence, presumably on the basis that drinking too much of some of the stock may lead you to needing the other half of the shop nine months later. In between he visits the concrete hippo of Walsall, the rabbits that must not be mentioned of Portland and the bonfire societies of Lewes amongst lots of others. He isn’t put off dealing with harder issues either such as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland when he went to Andersontown or the chronic unemployment and deprivation in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. You really can learn a lot about the UK, its geography and history from these short essays.

All in all it is a delightfully eccentric tour of the UK only marred by his use of the ‘f’ word on several occasions which makes it unsuitable for younger readers, but frankly they aren’t the audience he is aiming at. It is a pity though as the language is unnecessary because Steel has a wonderful turn of phrase and is genuinely funny and he is much more careful with his broadcast versions. All fifty four episodes of the Radio 4 show are currently available on BBC Sounds and are well worth a listen.